Followers of football, it is said, have some of the shortest memories around. If the transfer saga involving Juan Mata, who today completed his £37 million move to Manchester United to Chelsea, is anything to go by, they might be getting shorter by the month.
To a certain extent, Chelsea fans can be forgiven for their sluggish recollection ability. Following a slow start under Jose Mourinho, the Stamford Bridge Victory Machine has ground into forebodingly full flow, efficiently churning out win after win after win as the season enters its inevitably tense denouement. They now sit two just two points off the top of the Premier League, having scored as many goals as Arsenal, the competition’s current leader. Mata has hardly featured in this impressive ascent, meaning that for many Chelsea fans, Mourinho’s selection policy has been proved justified.
Yet it is easy to forget, especially after several frantic days of rumour and negotiation, that Mata’s move is a surprising one for all concerned. In the cold light of day, of course, it is highly shocking that Chelsea would deem it sensible to sell the man who has comfortably walked away with their Player of the Year award in the last two seasons. After all, if Chelsea fans had been informed of this move would six months ago, there would likely have been a fan mutiny of considerable proportions at Stamford Bridge.
Granted, there are ways to justify the Mata transfer from a Chelsea point of view. From one perspective, the money United are offering for an out of favour player is too good to turn down, especially when the club’s net spend has fluctuated between -£70m and -90m over the last four years. The suits at Chelsea, after all, have Financial Fair Play regulations to bear in mind.
Yet even now, their ominously potent attacking threat – currently comprising of a first choice line-up of Edin Hazard, Oscar and Willian – is, as United will be able to qualify, always just one or two injuries away from assuming a distinctly average character once again. Their backup is no longer all that substantial.
It’s also a surprising move from United’s perspective. True, this is a United team crying out for reinforcements, particularly in central midfield. They could do with a left back, too, and perhaps a winger or two. A new No.10 will hardly have been top of the wish-list for the majority of the club’s followers.
It didn’t seem to be an immediate priority United management over the summer, either, with Moyes rumoured apparently turning down the opportunity to acquire Mezut Ozil from Real Madrid when news spread about the player’s availability. The argument goes that with a prospering Wayne Rooney, the mercurial Shinji Kagawa, fan favourite Danny Welbeck and the exciting potential talent of Adnan Januzaj amongst their ranks, a new playmaker is hardly amongst the top necessities at Old Trafford. Where, exactly, does Mata fit in to Moyes’ Master Plan?
Fears that it will be difficult to find a place for Mata should not be overemphasised, though. This, after all, is a Manchester United side which has struggled to find any rhythm in the final third this season, repeatedly resorting to feeding endless balls out to their uninspired wingers to then repeatedly launch hopelessly into the box. Mata’s presence will put a stop to this. The Spaniard is able to play in most positions across an attacking lineup, including on the wing, and although justifiable fears remain about his inclination to track back (an quality traditionally as highly valued at Old Trafford as it is at Stamford Bridge), the Spaniard has improved greatly in this regard in recent months, and may prove far more willing to get stuck in now he has new team-mates at a new club to impress.
More importantly – and make no mistake about this – Mata is a player cut truly from the finest cloth. His numbers have proven consistently startling: Since August 2011, he put on more assists (27) than any other player in the Premier League with the exception of David Silva. The player in third position in that list is Wayne Rooney, his new team-mate. When combined with the 18 goals he has netted himself, Mata has been involved with 45 goals in the league across this same time period, more than anyone else except Robin Van Persie, with whom he will also line up with at Old Trafford.
Mata is a proven performer. He scored for Chelsea on his debuts in the Premier League, FA Cup, Champions League, League Cup and Club World Cup and is the only player, along with Fernando Torres, to hold the Europa League, Champions League, World Cup and European Championship simultaneously. He also has an extensive track record of delivering in the biggest of big games: most notably, there was his assist for Didier Drogba’s header in the 2012 Champions League Final, another for Branislav Ivanovic’s winner in the 2013 Europa League Final, and his goal in the Euro 2012 final against Italy.
Nor does he arrive at Old Trafford unproven in the Premier League. United have spent big on foreign talent before – the £24 million signing of Juan Sebastian Verón in particular springs to mind – but rarely have they invested big money on players already possessing proven ability to acclimatise to the league. The recent case of Shinji Kagawa is proof enough of the pricey risk of acquiring talent which has thrived abroad but perhaps lacks the specific physical requirements to prosper in England. Mata, of course, is already entirely acclimatised to the pace of the league. And at just 25, he could potentially play at the club for many years to come. He is, after all, 15 days younger than the recently departed Anderson, and three years younger than Rooney.
Another, rarely discussed positive to look forward to from the transfer will be the valuable expertise that Mata will bring in terms of set-piece delivery, an area where United have persistently struggled in recent years, with the brief exception of Robin van Persie last season. Indeed, the club are all too aware of his ability, having been on the receiving end of his excellent direct free kick strike which won a fixture at Old Trafford for Chelsea in the 87th minute at the end of last season.
But Mata’s signing goes far beyond statistics and tactical mechanics. Despite his limited playing time this season, the Spaniard, as one of the finest attacking talents in world football, is an inspiring statement signing. His acquisition will come as a relief to many, for it proves that United, despite their traumatic 2013/14 to date, are still capable of attracting the game’s most glamorous and exciting names.
Cultured, stylish, intelligent and talented, Mata is exactly the sort of personality Manchester United should be clambering to get through their doors. For Moyes, Mata is undoubtedly something of a slightly desperate and unimaginative panic buy. Fortunately for him and United, he’ll undoubtedly prove to be an extremely exhilarating and ruthlessly effective one.